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Referendum drive launched to overturn SB 1184

No sooner had Gov. Butch Otter signed SB 1184, the third major school-reform bill, into law, than a new group of parents and teachers calling itself "Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform" had delivered the preliminary paperwork to the Idaho Secretary of State's office for a referendum seeking to overturn the new law. "Frankly, this is very much a parent-driven effort," said Mike Lanza, a Boise father of two who's joined Boise parent Maria Greeley to form the new group. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa received the documents and said, "We'll expedite this … the clock is ticking." The referendum supporters now have 60 days from yesterday to gather 47,432 signatures from registered voters to overturn each of the three main school reform bills, SB 1184 on technology and online learning, SB 1110 on teacher merit-pay bonuses and SB 1108 removing most collective bargaining rights from teachers.

"We are here because thousands of emails, thousands of people attending rallies across Idaho, and the testimony of parents, school board members, school administrators and teachers did not matter to Gov. Otter and the majority of the state Legislature," Lanza said. "Idahoans made it clear that we do not want to trade teachers for laptops and required online courses. And we do not support laws that accomplish little beyond denigrating teachers. The governor and Legislature rammed this plan through against the overwhelming opposition of the public. They passed it despite being told by administrators and teachers who will have to implement this poorly designed plan that it will be a financial and educational disaster for Idaho's public schools."

He said, "The truth is we should not have to pursue this referendum effort. We should be able to rely on our elected representatives to respect the will of their constituents. By signing the last bill this morning, Gov. Otter sent a clear message that he, Supt. Luna and their supporters in the Legislature have chosen their political agenda over public opinion."

Four online classes: ‘That’s the minimum’

State schools Supt. Tom Luna now says it was a "misquote" when the New York Times quoted him this week saying that he'll ask the state Board of Education to require four online classes for graduation, though he then repeated that. "I was very comfortable with four," he said. "That will be the starting number. This decision is going to be made after a lot of research and a lot of discussion through the work of the state board. I am confident that we will have some number. And we have many states that are beginning to adopt graduation requirements when it comes to online credits. … I think four is a reasonable number." Gov. Butch Otter then added, "That's the minimum. … That's going to be the minimum . And if we experience in Idaho the same things other states have experienced," Otter said students likely will be taking "12 or 15" online classes.

Otter signs third school-reform bill

Gov. Butch Otter has signed SB 1184 into law, the third major school-reform bill, saying, "The system we had wasn't working, wasn't producing the kind of students that we needed." The bill shifts funds from teacher salaries to technology boosts and a merit-pay program, and brings a new focus on online learning. "With the signing of this bill, the work will just begin," Otter said. "There are those that want us to fail - we are not going to fail. We're going to push this education package, this reform, until it meets the needs of our future workforce, until it meets the needs of students today."

State schools Supt. Tom Luna, who joined Otter at the signing along with a big group of legislative sponsors and supporters, said, "This is a great monumental day for students in Idaho, for the children in Idaho." He said the bills will do "things that we know we should have done long ago." The other two pieces of the plan, already quietly signed into law, remove most collective bargaining rights from teachers and set up a merit-pay bonus system.

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said when he first heard from Otter in November that "we need to talk about education reform … I had no idea of the depth of reform that we were talking about. … It's landmark legislation." House Education Vice Chair Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, filling in for House Education Chairman Bob Nonini, said, "I think every teacher will be a better teacher with the proper utilization of technology in the classroom."

Day after: The $100,000 story, school-reform signing, referendum launch

Here's a link to my full story in today's Spokesman-Review on how lawmakers rushed a bill through in the final days of the legislative session to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party for its attorney fees in its successful lawsuit to overturn Idaho's open primary election system; that bill now awaits action by Gov. Butch Otter.

Meanwhile, Otter is scheduled to sign SB 1184, the third major school-reform bill that shifts resources from teacher salaries to technology boosts, online learning and and a teacher merit-pay plan, at 10:30 this morning, joined by state schools Supt. Tom Luna and legislative sponsors.

And a group called "Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform" has announced it'll launch a referendum drive to overturn 1184 an hour later; you can read their announcement here. Also, House Democrats will hold a press conference after the governor's bill-signing to discuss this year's legislative session.

Last day matches prickly session…

The Senate killed a hard-fought energy compromise by one vote, the House speaker booted two moderates out of their committee chairmanships, and Idaho's wild 2011 legislative session ground to a finish Thursday after 88 days - the seventh-longest session in state history, and clearly one of the prickliest. Minority Democrats branded the session the "worst in memory," and even majority Republicans called it "difficult" and "frustrating." House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, said, "It was a difficult session, but I think when it's all said and done, that we did what we had to do." You can read my full last-day story here at spokesman.com.

‘A dreadful exclamation point’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney's sudden moves to replace two committee chairmen - Reps.  Leon Smith at Transportation and Tom Trail at Agriculture -  announced quietly just as the House was adjourning, sent shock waves through the House. Denney said he made the move to enforce party discipline. Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said, "It's not always easy being in leadership, that's all I can say." House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, "I think they will lose something. Leon has huge experience in transportation, and I'm not sure that Joe does."

Smith, a former chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board, is in his seventh term in the House. Trail, a farmer and education consultant, is in his eighth term. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, who represents the same district as Trail, said, "I was quite shocked by it." She said, "This has been a dreadful session, and for me, that put a dreadful exclamation point right at the end."

Denney pulls committee chairmanships from Trail, Smith

House Speaker Lawerence Denney has removed two of the most independent-voting committee chairmen in the House: Transportation Chairman Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, and Agriculture Chairman Tom Trail, R-Moscow, as punishment for not voting with leadership on procedural votes, including moves to call bills from committee, to send bills to the amending order, and to return bills to committee. Among those that Smith backed calling out was his own bill on online sales taxes, which Denney unilaterally killed early in the session.

"I don't ask anybody to vote a certain way on any issue, but I do expect them to support other committee chairmen and leadership on procedural issues, and there were several votes this year that they did not support us," Denney said.

Denney replaced both chairmen with their vice chairs: Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, who is only in his second term, is the new transportation chairman, and Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, a fourth-term lawmaker, is the new agriculture chairman.

House adjourns for the year

The gavel fell, and the House adjourned for the year at 2:21 p.m. "This has been a very difficult session," said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. "I do apologize for the little scarf incident yesterday. I take responsibility for that. I don't want to make any excuses, but hopefully it was a learning experience for all of us, and I hope it will never happen again."

"I think perception is very important," Denney said. "We have to be very careful about what we say and what we do and how it is perceived."

After calling for the vote to adjourn, Denney said, "The ayes have it, the House stands adjourned sine die." Members rose to applaud, and their 2011 session ended.

‘Youth challenge’ bill passes, House prepares to adjourn sine die

On a 58-10 vote, the House has approved SB 1206 to create a "Youth Challenge Program" under the Idaho National Guard in Pierce. Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, debated against the bill, saying Idaho shouldn't accept federal money for the program. "We send people to Washington and say, 'Balance the budget, cut spending,' and we turn around and say we're not going to do anything to help you," he said. "This to me is an excellent program, but I don't think it's the time to start a whole new program." Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, "This is a pay-me-now or pay-me-later deal." The high school dropouts who are targeted for the military-operated youth program will find it "life-changing," he said. "This is a program that takes private dollars and matches it with available federal dollars." The Albertson Foundation has committed to providing part of the matching funds.

Among those joining VanderWoude in opposing the bill were Reps. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens; Phil Hart, R-Athol; and Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton. The bill now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. It was the last vote for the House this year; the House is now preparing to adjourn sine die.

Goedde: ‘Proud of work we’ve done’

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said it's been a "difficult" legislative session for him. "I'm proud of the work that we've done in the education reform arena," he said, "and it's a good first step. As we go to implement it, there may be some changes that need to be made, and that's part of the process. I look forward to working with educators over the interim to address those issues."

Asked about the prospect of a voter referendum to overturn the reforms, Goedde said, "'Certainly that's the constitutional right of the voters. I think that if this is on the ballot in November of 2012, that there's a very good chance the voters of the state of Idaho will sustain the work that we've done." He said he's already hearing stories about teachers coming up with ideas on how they'd earn bonuses under the plan - but those don't start until 2013. Next year, in 2012, teachers will receive a pay cut, under the school budget that lawmakers approved. "That's a function of revenue," Goedde said. "Next year, if the revenue picture looks rosier, we can allocate additional funds to K-12, if that's the will of the body."

Pro-megaload bill passes, heads to guv

HB 193a, the pro-megaloads bill designed to block lawsuits targeting big loads on Idaho roads, has cleared the House as amended in the Senate, on a 55-12 vote. "It'll help hopefully to curtail some lawsuits and save the state some money," Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, the bill's sponsor, told the House. Earlier in the week when he asked the House to concur in the Senate amendments, Harwood said, "I feel like we sent 'em over a bear and they sent me back the rug, but I want to concur with this." The Senate's changes to the bill altered it from a required bond from anyone suing of 5 percent of the insured value of the load, to a judge's option to require such a bond of up to 10 percent of that value. The bill now moves to the governor's desk.

Amended day-care licensing bill wins final passage in House

The day care licensing bill, HB 129a, has been approved in the House as amended in the Senate, on a 59-8 vote. "We have worked on this day care legislation for many years, and this time we got it right," Rep. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, told the House.

House approves public school budget, 53-17

The House has voted 53-17 in favor of SB 1206, the public schools budget, a measure that takes in the single largest piece of Idaho's state spending. Under SB 1206, Idaho schools will see a $47 million funding cut next year, on top of the unprecedented $128.5 million that was cut this year, the first year-to-year reduction in total school funding in the state's recorded history. All 13 House Democrats voted no; they were joined by GOP Reps. Mike Moyle, Leon Smith, Julie Ellsworth and Tom Trail.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said, "I believe it's not enough money to support public education in Idaho, and I believe that we had other choices." She said, "We haven't looked at any ways of improving our revenue flow, and we're not doing justice to the children across the state." Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, warned that while lawmakers pat themselves on the backs for holding the line on taxes, they're pushing local voters to approve property tax increases to bail out struggling local schools. Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said, "We're funding education based on what individuals and citizens in our state can afford right now. … We have the revenue that we have, and we have to make that work." The vote sends the budget bill to the governor's desk.

Focus shifts to House for final action…

It's in the House that the remaining business of the legislative session will be done; but one thing's clear: This morning's exercise, in which a new charter school cap-lifting bill was introduced in a hastily-called Ways & Means Committee meeting, then passed on the floor 39-29 amid much debate, was all for naught; the Senate has adjourned without taking up the bill.

Here, Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, visits with Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, and Speaker Lawerence Denney during the lunch break today, with boxes piled up outside the chamber in anticipation of adjournment, which could still be several hours away. The House was in mid-debate on the public schools budget when it stopped for lunch.

Gavel falls, Senate adjourns

At 12:36 p.m., the gavel fell in the Senate, and it adjourned sine die for the legislative session.

Perhaps the oddest moment of the Senate's closing presentations - not counting the singing, which is more typical of the House - came when Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, after sharing some Capitol history, presented Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, with a "Snuggie" made out of the curtains from the former Gold Room, which he then reluctantly and partially modeled. There were also heartfelt thank-you's, speeches and acknowledgements, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill presented Education Committee Chairman John Goedde with a flag.

Here's the background on the "Snuggie:" Last year, Brackett presented Smyser and Sen. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, with pink versions on the final day because they'd complained about the chilly chamber as the kinks were worked out of the new heating and cooling system, and while Smyser fled, McKague was photographed in hers and it appeared in the newspaper; today, Smyser got Brackett back.

How they voted…

Here's how senators voted on HB 347, the renewable energy compromise bill that was killed by one vote in the final decision of the Senate's session this year:

Voting in favor: Sens. Bair, Bock, Brackett, Cameron, Darrington, Hammond, Heider, Hill, Keough, LeFavour, Malepeai, McGee, McKague, McKenzie, Siddoway, Stennett, and Werk.

Voting against: Sens. Andreason, Bilyeu, Broadsword, Corder, Davis, Fulcher, Goedde, Lodge, Mortimer, Nuxoll, Pearce, Schmidt, Smyser, Stegner, Tippets, Toryanski, Vick and Winder.

Senate prepares to adjourn, House takes a lunch break mid-debate

The Senate, preparing to adjourn sine die, has sent committees to inform both the House and the governor. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, reported back, "We've spoken to the governor … He's excited that we're going home." Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise, reported back from the House, "They said they'd be ready in a couple of hours."

The Senate is now saying its goodbyes and making some final presentations; meanwhile the House had taken a lunch break, without finishing its debate on the public school budget. The House is scheduled to return at 1:15.

Senate readies to adjourn sine die

The Senate has taken the first steps, appointing committees to inform the House and the governor, toward adjourning sine die - without a day - which means wrapping it up for the legislative session.

Senate kills energy compromise

In a surprise move, the Senate has just voted 17-18 on HB 347, the renewable energy rebate - killing the bill. It was the first piece of a two-bill compromise on energy policy. Immediately after the vote, the Senate went at ease. Then, Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, asked to return HB 348, the second piece of the compromise, to committee. "The bill that we just had and this bill were two parts of a compromise, hard fought," McKenzie told the Senate. "Without one it's very unfair to those who were involved to pass the other."

Another narrow vote in Senate on emergency clause for school reform

The Senate has again voted narrowly, 19-16, to approve a "trailer" bill adding an emergency clause to this year's school reform legislation, this time on HB 345, which adds the clause to SB 1184, the bill that shifts funding from salaries to technology and promotes online learning. It then voted 33-2 in favor of HB 315, another "trailer" bill, this one to restore, for one year, a portion of the protection school districts that lose enrollment now have from sharp funding drops from one year to the next, while also eliminating a requirement for severance payments for teachers laid off in the fall. Both measures now go to the governor.

Meanwhile, the House is debating the public school budget, SB 1206.

House passes new charter school cap-lifting bill, 39-29

HB 353, the newly introduced bill to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools, has passed the House on a 39-29 vote; the bill was just introduced in a hastily called House Ways & Means Committee meeting an hour earlier. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the sponsor of the bill, said, "Not one size fits all for our kids." The bill drew much opposing debate; House leaders said they'll send it to the Senate, which may not consider it with today's pending adjournment of this year's legislative session.

Ed reform trailer bill squeaks through, 19-16

HB 336, the second "trailer" bill to this year's school reform bills, passed the Senate on a narrow 19-16 vote; that was the bill to add an emergency clause to SB 1110, the teacher merit pay bill, even though the merit pay program wouldn't begin until 2013. The next measure, HB 344, to free schools from a maintenance match requirement, passed unanimously; now the Senate is taking up HB 345, the "trailer" bill to SB 1184, the school technology funding bill.

House debating new charter school cap-lifting bill that just was introduced today

The House is debating HB 353, the newly introduced bill to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, asked why the bill's fiscal note showed no impact on the state's general fund, and questioned why more charter schools wouldn't cost more. Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, the bill's sponsor, said, "There is no evidence as to what the growth would be."

Senate passes first school reform trailer bill, adding emergency clause to SB 1108

The Senate has taken up the first of the "trailer" bills, or follow-up bills, to the school reform bills this year; the first one, HB 335, amends the teacher contract bill, SB 1108, making various changes and adding an emergency clause; it drew lots of questions, then passed on a 21-14 vote. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, questioned some of the details in the bill, and Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, raised concerns. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, noted that the emergency clause in the measure is contradicted by various other clauses that say portions of the bill wouldn't take effect immediately; she said it's just there to "thwart a democratic process."

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, the bill's sponsor, said, "Certainly the insertion of the emergency clause does not abrogate the rights of the voters in the referendum process." If a referendum to overturn the school reforms qualifies for the ballot, he said, "They're going to have an opportunity to vote in November 2012 whether they like what we've done or not." He said "in the meantime … we can move forward." Without the emergency clause, if a referendum qualified for the 2012 ballot, it would have prevented the law from taking effect until after the election.

Millenium Fund budget bill barely passes, 34-32; killing it would’ve delayed session

SB 1205, the Millennium Fund budget, just barely passed the House on a 34-32 vote, with the vote teetering back and forth several times - it settled several times at a tie - before finally reaching the two-vote margin of approval. If that budget bill had been killed, the legislative session would have been extended at least into tomorrow, and likely into next week, as JFAC would have had to convene and write a new budget bill. Opponents said they were concerned that the budget bill overrode recommendations from the special joint Millennium Fund Committee to direct funds to various anti-tobacco and preventative health projects; instead, the money was directed to the Health & Welfare budget. Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said, "I think that we were gamed into the last day to hear this particular budget. … I'll be voting no." The budget bill now goes to the governor's desk.

Lawmakers rush $100K payment to Idaho GOP in unusual arrangement

Idaho lawmakers rushed through a bill to pay $100,000 to the Idaho Republican Party - to which 81 percent of them belong - in the final days of this year's legislative session, to cover the party's attorney fees in its successful primary election lawsuit against the state. Though it's not uncommon for prevailing parties to get their legal fees paid in a federal civil rights case, what's very unusual is how the Idaho GOP set up its fee arrangement with its attorney - a rare "contingent fee" deal in which only the taxpayers would have to pay, not the party, regardless of the outcome.

"It was not something they had to do," said John Strait, a law professor at Seattle University School of Law and an expert on federal court litigation. "The Republicans decided they would rather have him paid out of taxpayer money, and they set it up that way." You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

New charter school cap removal bill introduced on party-line vote

The House Ways & Means Committee just voted 4-3, along party lines, to introduce a new version of Rep. Cliff Bayer's legislation to lift the cap on creation of new charter schools in Idaho, which currently is set at six. With lawmakers pushing for adjournment today, however, it's unclear whether the bill has any chance of moving through both houses. The previous version was killed in the House yesterday in an ethics dispute, after a lobbyist distributed yellow fleece scarves commemorating "National School Choice Week" to every House member shortly before the House was to vote on the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, just told the Senate, "Senators, we are going home today. We are not holding any additional committee meetings. We are done."

Second piece of energy compromise clears Senate committee on 6-3 vote

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, has moved to send the second piece of the energy compromise, HB 347, to the full Senate with a recommendation that it "do pass." McGee said in the past hour and a half, he's heard "compelling" testimony on both sides of the issue, but said, "I think this is good for our long-term energy policy." Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, seconded the motion, but said he wouldn't support further extensions of the renewable energy tax rebate beyond 2014. The motion passed on a 6-3 vote, and committee Chairman Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said, "I think it was a fine hearing." He was among the three "no" votes, along with Sens. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Diane Bilyeu, D-Pocatello.

House breaks for Ways & Means meeting

The House has taken a break for a Ways & Means Committee meeting to introduce a new bill that Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said "we need to get over to the Senate." The committee has posted an agenda showing that it'll consider a new bill from Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, on charter schools.

House Ed approves youth challenge bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Legislation to establish a military-based program targeted at high school dropouts in northern Idaho is headed to the state House of Representatives for debate. A House panel voted Thursday to advance the legislation, SB 1208, which directs the Idaho National Guard to establish a Youth Challenge Program in Pierce. Don Ebert chairs the Clearwater County Commission and says the move, which is expected to create 50 new jobs in northern Idaho, "is huge for us." The House is expected to debate the bill later Thursday. It has passed the Senate. Federal dollars would cover most of the program's startup costs. The state will use private funding to cover a 25 percent share of the program's annual $4 million cost by 2013. Nationwide, the Youth Challenge Program has 33 camps in 27 states.